by Stan Richardson · February 20, 2014
It is both strange and sense-making to think that the plays Caryl Churchill is known for—stylistically-innovative modern masterpieces like Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Serious Money—are among her most traditional.
Indeed, Churchill herself describes her 1997 double-bill, Blue Heart, as two plays that self-destruct–one shows a banal domestic scene evolve towards increasingly surreal outcomes as it keeps resetting to the top; in the other, “blue” and “kettle” gradually infiltrate the characters’ vocabulary like a computer virus until the language of the final scene consists exclusively of the two words. Her play This is a Chair (1999) pairs scene titles of great political significance (“The War in Bosnia,” “Pornography and Censorship”) with the unrelated and mundane goings-on of characters insulated from most anything beyond their own dinner table.
In recent years, her writing has become even more elliptical: stage directions, character names, even punctuation go missing. Reading her newest play, Love and Information, as I did when it was published almost a year ago, is like listening in on a series of whispered conversation between shapeless participants—sometimes an entire exchange, sometimes just a fragment. Each of the narratives is independent of the others, but the speakers are all, as the title suggests, in pursuit or avoidance of connection and access, obsessed with being in the know, but ambivalent about being known.
The vast majority of New York productions helmed by James MacDonald, who directed the world premiere of Love and Information at the Royal Court in 2012, are plays with little to no stage directions (Churchill’s A Number and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, Cock by Mike Bartlett). He is a “playwright’s director” in that he follows the language rather than the other way around, though he’s most in his element with plays that evoke rather than dictate a visual analogue. His stage pictures are vivid, sparse, often breathtaking and he coaxes performances that are of a piece with his gregarious yet menacing mise-en-scène.
The U.S. premiere of Love and Information, presented by New York Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane, is absolutely worth seeing. This is a theatrical event in the truest sense of the expression: your time will not be spent in vain and you will leave the theater with more synapses firing than when you arrived. The fifteen-person ensemble of veterans and newcomers is talented, even starry (at least to theater-goers who have frequented off-Broadway in the past two decades); that it is so effortlessly and richly diverse in terms of age and race is an added thrill—and an example worth following.
It is a credit to the deep and abiding talent of both playwright and director that I am less taken with this production over most of their previous efforts. Billed as a “theatrical kaleidoscope” with over a hundred characters, this production of Love and Information occurs in a large graph-paper cube; a scene is played followed by a sound-effects-laden blackout during which a clever new set (and new set of actors) is whisked on in darkness. However, this stage magic can be both hypnotic and enervating.
Churchill’s play—in form and in content—is about our desire for and suspicion of novelty and variety. That makes the director’s job quite difficult: these playlets are mostly two-person conversations; they usually involve either a neutral dialogue in which only the participants know what they are discussing, or a hyper-specific rant/epiphany; and most of the scenes are quite brief (some are half a sentence long). MacDonald’s efforts to give provocative and meaningful flesh to each of the fifty or so anonymous exchanges coupled with the blackouts needed to shift between each scene can feel less like a kaleidoscope than a vaudeville and leaves one wanting not more, but just a bit less.
Most of the time the actors get their bearings quickly enough, but even with lushly detailed costumes (by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood), it is very hard to summon and discard a character within the blink of an eye. But the significance of Churchill’s words, like Shakespeare’s, are best apprehended at just that speed.